China and U.S. Brinkmanship in the South China Sea

Joseph Kirschke, December 13, 2011

Two weeks ago, The Washington Post broadsided us with another Beltway bombshell: China's "Underground Great Wall" – a "vast network of tunnels" with a "sophisticated missile and nuclear arsenal" dug by "a secretive branch of the Chinese military."

The intrigue came from a 363-page study by top Pentagon strategist-turned-Georgetown University professor Phillip A. Karber and his students, based on classified Chinese military documents, satellite imagery and other information. Among the revelations, a Second Artillery Corps—which, in addition to digging the tunnels, has a website—directly linked to The Post's article.

To its credit, the story shows the three-year project creating an atmosphere menacing U.S. nuclear stockpile reductions. Still, the often-absurd saga of China and the United States will live on in dreary Capitol Hill hearings and buzz among Pentagon brass and tiresome foreign policy oracles. Moreover, despite U.S. economic indebtedness to China, Inc.—and common sense—petty, 1960s-era politicking and a military industrial complex fixated with a rising Middle Kingdom will continue to carry much of the day.

Is China challenging its neighbors over the Spratly Islands, the Paracels, the Scarborough Shoals, Reed Bank and Tungsha in a South China Sea home to 17.7 billion tons of oil and gas? According to the Indonesian Center of Democracy, Diplomacy and Defense, Beijing has deployed 27 battleships, an aircraft carrier and unknown submarines to the area amid competing claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Beijing and the People's Liberation Army, for their part, have their own highly unpublicized views on Asian brinkmanship. Though hardly state secrets, they won't scream off the pages of The Post anytime soon.

Back in 2001, a curious incident off south China brought to light some quiet Cold War-style American espionage. The episode, long overshadowed by 9/11, took place when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese aircraft near Hainan Island, leading to the crew's capture by local authorities.

After a diplomatic standoff, the pilots were freed in one of President George W. Bush's earliest humiliations. The following decade, we know, was marred by bigger embarrassments—namely botched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—all impossibilities bereft a multitrillion-dollar fire sale of U.S. Treasury assets to China.

To this day, surveillance of China's air defense systems persists beneath the radar, 10 years after the worst terror attack in United States history claimed some 3,000 lives.

Lately, ASEAN members are relaxing with President Obama's announcement of a U.S. military base with 2,500 marines in Darwin, Australia. But Beijing sees red: In the vast arc of a U.S. militarized zone from the Korean peninsula to Marine bases in Japan—with more than 60,000 U.S. personnel between the two—to an activist 7th Fleet off Taiwan, it will now face extra encirclement thousands of miles due south. This must be a twist, given that China's joint naval maneuvers with the Australians in 2010 deliberately excluded American forces.

In the end, however, the Chinese Communist Party, with its 70 million adherents, remains its own worst enemy. The Party has a massive public relations problem, one that perpetuates the great Pacific stalemate every bit as much as Washington adventurism. Much state-owned media, notably, ceaselessly echoes eerie-sounding praise of "strategic cooperation" and "win-win" situations juxtaposed with bristling hostility, sowing bilateral confusion in the process. 

President Obama's fabled 2009 Shanghai town-hall meeting crystallized this myopia. At the height of his first, most important visit to the mainland, Obama faced Orwellian questions by handpicked, hopelessly robotic students. Domestic media glossed over touchy responses, censors took down Internet transcripts, and only one local station carried the show live while international condemnation was fast and furious. It was hardly Beijing's finest hour.

All this is understandable, if maddening. Colored by millennial traditions tinged heavily by a brutal nationalism, an obsession with preserving face at all costs, and a historically justified leeriness of outsiders, the Chinese government feels itself caught between a rock and a hard place.

Order among 1.3 billion people is perceived as crucial, and sometimes urgent against a backdrop of ethnic tensions. Thus 60 offenses, including killing pandas, are capital crimes, among other gruesome human rights statistics. For another consideration, the unseemly term "renegade province" is all part of Beijing's oft-ignored internal domino theory: Once Taiwan goes, rather, so too do Tibet and Xinjiang, an "autonomous region" totaling one-sixth of China's land mass.

None of this, including China's big posturing or detentions of the tiny fishing boats of smaller countries, is excusable. China's balancing act, however, at least from within, weighs a broader—and, in ways, more serious—internal reality: patriotism of ordinary Chinese resentful of encroachment by foreigners.

And what if Alaska and Florida had separatist ambitions? Would China make public overtures to their political and religious leadership? Or what if the Chinese, under a 30-year-old internal mandate, sold billions in surface-to-air-missiles and MiG-20 fighter jets to an independent Hawaii, one with ties to an American civil war claiming at least 1 million lives that ended but 60 years ago?

Imagine a foreign, nuclear-armed naval destroyer hovering 300 miles off California's coast? And imagine Washington Post editorial indignity were Chinese signal intelligence planes probing national air defenses near the coast of Oregon.

These days, Sino-U.S. relations in Asia's sullied waters are equally beset by misunderstandings as genuine threats. On one side are Americans, brash and eager to manage crises and dominate a Pacific agenda they have largely ignored over the past 10 years. On the other are a proud, stubborn, heavy-handed Chinese set in their ways and petrified of betraying any weakness—to their own people, much less anyone else.

Joseph Kirschke is an American writer and a former editor at China Daily, the biggest-circulating English-language newspaper in China, based in Beijing.

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